I’ve never been a good sleeper.
As a little girl, I dreaded bedtime. There were always so many games I hadn’t yet played and barbies I hadn’t yet dressed and stories I hadn’t yet told my mama. I always felt like going to bed was quitting. Quitting the day before I accomplished every possible thing that I could have. I became the master of continuing to be “productive” long after I had been tucked in and the lights had been turned off. As I grew and the novels that my little mind could comprehend grew too, I would stay up late into the night reading. The Magic School Bus turned to Junie B. Jones turned to Nancy Drew, and I remember feeling so annoyed at the interruption to my story when either of my parents would softly knock on my door long past midnight and advise that I get some rest since I had school in a few hours.
These late-night, no-sleep habits followed me through high school. I’m an admitted procrastinator, and it always made sense to me to start homework around 8 or 9 the night before it was due. In part, basketball practice and theater rehearsal and youth group in the evenings didn’t really give me much choice, but there was so much life to be lived with others during the more reasonable hours of the day. I would much rather dive into the trivial task of homework after I had already squeezed as much social life out of the day as possible.
Naturally, every college student scoffs at sleep, and my habits worsened during these years as well. Its quite normal to stay up till 3am on the weekends, romping around campus and watching movies and sneaking into hotel hot tubs. Study parties late into the night that pause for Taco Bell runs or parking lot dance parties are much more enjoyable than studying individually and efficiently on a Monday afternoon.
My disregard for sleep has definitely caught up to me. Over the last two years, my body and mind and heart has stopped bouncing back so quickly from nights of little rest. However, my habits persist and I struggle to turn my mind off at night.
I think my indifference towards sleep is related to my indifference towards rest.
See, I always thought that rest meant doing nothing. It meant sleeping and sitting on the couch and maybe reading, but mostly it meant doing nothing really at all. And that legitimately gives me anxiety. I get stir-crazy in about 5 minutes if I’m just sitting around. I am not good at silence. A “day off” for me is still filled with lots of doing, cleaning and organizing and errand running.
In part, this is because I feel the constant urge to consume or produce things of value. I don’t want to waste any of the time that I’ve been given. If I’m cooking or curling my hair, I want music playing. If I’m going on a walk, I want a podcast in my ears teaching me something new. I want to spend every second on my life living open and full and doing everything I can do work on my heart and mind and body so that I can continue to be ready for the opportunities that might come my way.
I started a new job about 6 months ago. Last May, I graduated from college and I spent the summer traveling the world and floating in my pool and wondering what my post-graduate life would look like. In August, I started my first “big girl” job complete with cubicles and dress pants and business trips. Around the same time, one of my favorite authors, Shauna Niequist, came out with a new book entitled Present Over Perfect. Shuana writes with raw intensity, and yet her words always bring me peace. She gives some of the crazier parts of me permission to exist in their eccentricity, and she always calls her readers back to the simple truths of life. Of course, I pre-ordered her new book on Amazon and began reading it as soon as it showed up on my doorstep.
This one hit me especially hard. Present Over Perfect outlines Shauna’s struggle with producing, performing, and perfecting to the point that she lost much of herself and her joy and felt as though she greatly neglected her family for a season. She wrote of her wild and productive younger years when she and her husband would work together late into the night and fall into bed with their jeans on only to wake the next morning and do it all over again. She wrote of months of traveling the country to speak and teach about her books during the week, flying home for the weekend to do laundry and kiss her boys on the forehead before running to the airport again. Through time and age and maturity and burnout, Shauna has learned that it is so much better to be present rather than be perfect. She would rather spend a quiet Saturday at home with her boys than impress the world with speaking engagements, or even impress dinner guests with a tidier home. And she wishes she had learned this lesson in her twenties rather than “wasting” so many years trying to prove, mostly to herself, that she was competent and capable of juggling all that she possibly could.
I read these words on a plane to San Fransisco for my first visit to the client site that I was going to be supporting remotely from Phoenix. My first business trip. I was a little anxious, but mostly excited to dive head first into the professional world. I am most definitely a performer. I thrive on the stage of life, taking risks and practicing my skills so that all can see and give my efforts praise. It may have started in theater as a little girl, but it has spread to almost every area of my life, and I am addicted to the rush that comes with praise. Praise that tells me I am worthy, competent, and deserving of love. And when the rush dies, I prepare another act to do it all over again and again and again so that fuel won’t stop pouring over my ego.
I remember pausing in the middle of a chapter, staring out the window of the plane at the twinkling lights below, and thinking that I might not be able to read this book in this particular season of my life. I needed to perform. For heavens sake, this is my youth! This is the time when I can throw myself full force into a career or a goal without abandon. With no family of my own to care for, I can invest long hours and late nights into hard work done right. My idealistic heart can run on little physical fuel and feed off the fuel of competency.
I love being a producer and a performer, and even when one of my favorite authors and artistic mentors spoke rest and relief over my tired soul (I see that now), I was too addicted to the high, too desperate to find purpose and worth in the eyes of others, too dependent on my own capability to see the truth of her words.
Because here’s the thing, in the quiet moments, when the lights turn out, when everyone goes home, when I log off at the end of the day, I don’t really believe that who I am has value outside of what I do.
I’ve been told that I am loved for who I am and not what I do, but in my reality who I am is what I do. There is no separation. If I cease to be the performer and the producer, if I cease to be able to call myself competent and capable, then I cease to be Jacova.
So I can’t sleep. I can’t waste an afternoon. I can’t half-ass an assignment. I can’t let myself rest because I have to prove that I deserve this life I have been given. I have to earn my keep. I have to make sure that I am worthy of the breath that fills my lungs.
That’s scary. Because the terrifying truth is that the show ends and the curtain closes. The spotlight turns off and the audience goes home. Sometimes in the middle of the show I miss my cue or fumble over a line or fall flat on a high note. I will fall short, and my stamina will run out. It already has. I’ve burned the candle at both ends until the stage on which I learned to thrive caught on fire, leaving me standing in the ashes wondering who I am and if I still have value if no one is there to tell me so.
I originally closed this little essay with a positive, hope-filled description about how I’m coming back to life out of those ashes. About how I’m learning to rest. About how I’m learning to go to bed early and spending more time in silence and how I’m learning to separate my identity from my work. And while most of that is true of this season, it paints a fairly benign picture of my struggle.
Honestly, I spend a lot of days fighting discouragement. This busy busy busy girl, who found way too much worth in juggling school and work and a vibrant social network doesn’t know what to do with all this free time. All this “rest” time.
I did a little bit of math (big deal for this Comm major). I have two regular commitments a week besides work (three if you count watching the Bachelor – RIP Corrine I will actually miss your drama). I have two or three faithful friends in Phoenix, one of whom is my roommate. So between work and commuting and my scattered social commitments (minus the Bachelor), I’m going to guess that’s about 50-55 hours a week that I have some sort of structured expectation within which I can find my identity. That leaves 113-118 hours that I spend either sleeping (SOS its still hard for me) or soul-searching.
113-118 hours. That’s a lot of hours for me to get stuck in my head. Hours to wonder if what I’m doing has any meaning other than the gas emissions I add to our atmosphere during my commute and the direct deposit that plops in my bank account every week. Hours to miss all the sweetness and strife LA was to me. Hours to lay in bed when I should be sleeping, wondering if I’m totally missing the point and squandering the opportunities and gifts that I’ve been given. Hours of asking God to give me the courage to show up with joy, telling myself that I trust Him – that He would not wire me for adventure and connection and critical thought without a clear purpose, that this desert has to be leading me to some sort of oasis, right?
There are moments when I can give a resounding RIGHT! When I spend a day connecting with my family or when the Bible study I stumbled into digs deeps into Scripture or when one of the kiddos I tutor grasps the concept we’ve been working on for an hour. YES! There is purpose and goodness and direction here! There is richness to this season of slowness that perhaps this over-achiever would never know otherwise. There is great necessity for me to step out of the spotlight long enough to look at the girl in the mirror and admit that she fails and falls and can’t keep it together on her own. Yes. Right. God is moving… I think, and I’m trying to know.
I talked to one of my best best friends from college yesterday on the phone, and we laughed about how post-grad looks a lot like getting excited when your HSA account covers an eye glass prescription and splurging on cleaning supplies at Target and sitting in traffic with a few anxiety attacks and existential crises scattered in between.
And maybe that’s ok. Maybe that’s all we have to give right now. Maybe part of “rest” means admitting when life is confusing and hard and choosing to sit in those tensions instead of “coping” or “achieving” or “numbing” our way out of it. Maybe – as my mom always tells me – all we can do is the next right thing. Just the next one. Maybe.
So I can’t promise the world much, but I can promise that I’ll keep showing up to my meetings and I’ll do my best to fill my 113-118 hours with meaning and I’ll try to train this over-active brain to turn off and sleep (PTL for melatonin and essential oils).
And I’ll just keep trying to do the next right thing, until I look up and realize that I’ve finally stepped into the oasis.